The Scene: Montego Bay and Dr Michael Manley

Montego Bay was abuzz, I could feel the energy. Dr Michael Manley, Jamaica’s high-profile, high-flying Prime Minister, would be addressing the adoring masses at the football stadium at 11am. The entire town was stoked.

And with good reason. Almost everyone I had met idolised Dr Manley. Optimism was rife, people were hopeful for the future. So when I saw the bright orange poster announcing his speech in Montego Bay I knew I had to see him.

I’d been spending a bit of time in the brand-new public library at Port Antonio. I could read the local newspapers, check out the notice boards and catch up on world news from a large assortment of international magazines. The neo-socialist government under Dr Michael Manley was pumping money into education and reform across the country and this library was proof in point.

Manley’s broad-based Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had won the recent election by a landslide majority, boosting his representation in parliament from his earlier election win in 1972. The bright orange posters (the JLP colors, along with a stylized rising sun) announcing his speech in Montego Bay had been plastered all over Port Antonio. His popularity was at an all-time high. It would be an event too good to pass up.

After two weeks in Port Antonio we were making steady progress with the refit. The boatyard had been able to haul out the Fantasy and Brian, Jerry and I spent three long days scraping and repainting the hull. Jim was still taking care of paperwork, so there was a lull in the work load.

I asked him if I could have a couple of days off to hitch-hike over to Montego Bay to see the rally. Jim was most supportive, even gave me a few extra dollars. I figured I could hitch over there on Friday and camp out. The rally was at 11am Saturday morning so I could see him speak and make it back to Port Antonio before dark.

Early on Friday I packed up my tarp and sleeping bag, made a few coconut bread sandwiches and stuck out my thumb. It would be about 200 kms to Montego Bay along the incredibly scenic north coast. Hitching was good in spite of the sparse traffic, made steady progress from town to town. I would walk along the road between rides, always gorgeous jungle, mountain and coastal scenery and plenty of people to talk with.  Dr Manley’s reforms were quite popular and orange posters were everywhere.

On the outskirts of Montego Bay a couple of young guys in a late-model sedan picked me up. They were just out cruising around, checking out the Friday night scene. Robert’s family owned the local saw mill and Carlos worked for the city as a fireman. For the rest of the evening we cruised all around Montego Bay – they knew everyone – out by the beach and through the neighborhoods.

Raggae blasted out of dance halls, bars, late-night stalls and every other car. Loud, raucous and alive. Carlos and Robert bought the beers and treated me to an amazing jerk goat supper from their friend’s roadside stall. And, of course, we smoked prodigious quantities of potent ganja. I kept them well-entertained with stories of my adventures and weed exploits. They loved hearing about Roatan.

When town quieted down, around mid-night, they dropped me off at Robert’s saw mill. He said I could sleep in the timber shed, nobody would be working Saturday morning. Perfect. Even better when it started to rain…I stayed nice and dry. All-in-all a great day.

Slept in until nine, pretty comfortable in the saw mill. It was only a short walk to the rally so I stashed my bag and joined the buzzing crowds all heading to the outdoor stadium, the largest venue in town. The atmosphere was electric. Giant banners, orange posters, T-shirts with JLP’s striking ‘rising sun’ logo. All supporting Dr Manley and his reforms. The gates opened and everyone rushed in. I got a decent view of the stage. Show time!

Upbeat reggae pumped out of the speakers. The MC, a Montego Bay DJ with a large following, made his way out, worked up the crowd a notch and then raised his voice even higher. “I bring to you, today, Dr Michael Manley.”

Dr Manley’s magic took immediate control of the stage and atmosphere. He was tall, handsome and personified the modern switched-on politician. Immaculately dressed and coifed, he stood above the seething masses and offered salvation.

The crowd went insane. Wild cheers, chants of “Manley, Manley”, dancing in the aisles, waving arms and swaying hips. The excitement was contagious, the energy was overwhelming.

I tried to catch what he was saying, but couldn’t really hear above the roar. Didn’t make any difference. Just listening to his cadence and the crowd reaction told me that his message resonated. He fired up the crowd for about an hour then waded into the masses for the personal touch. It was a frenzy, surging people everywhere. He was a rock star and they the adoring fans.

Oddly enough, the current issue of Time Magazine (available at the local library, Dr Manley’s reforms at work in Port Antonio) ran a cover story on the political unrest and violence in Jamaica and the failed policies of the socialist Prime Minister. My experience on the ground, amongst the people, was somewhat different.

The music kicked back in, somewhat lower in volume, and Dr Manley was escorted out in a black Mercedes accompanied by his posse of no-nonsense bodyguards. An amazing performance. The people loved him. After the show the crowds wandered off, I picked up my gear from the sawmill and started to walk back along the coast to Port Antonio.

Very slow going, hardly any traffic and many of the vehicles were already overloaded. In fact, it was dark by the time I got to Ocho Rios and there was zero traffic. Found a level spot next to a stream just off the road. As good a camping spot as any. Set up my tarp, ate my last sandwich and crashed out. Another busy day.

Totally poured that night. The stream flooded into my camp site and I had to scramble up the bank in the pitch dark. Wasn’t so bad as I found a level place further up but I was totally soaked. Luckily it was a warm night.

A waterlogged, but fast, hitch-hike back to the Fantasy Sunday morning. Jim had finally cleared up all the paperwork and the Fantasy was ship shape. All we needed to do was stow everything away and top up the water and food stores. Then on to the Cayman Islands and up the Yucatan Channel to Key West.

Published by Phil Parent

Phil Parent is a geographer residing in Queenstown New Zealand.

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